Clinton’s Ingenious Debate Strategy Lays Bare Trump’s Racism, Sexism and Venality
If there’s anything you want in a president of these United States, it’s the ability to execute a superior strategy against a foe who threatens to tear the nation apart. In Monday night’s historic presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York, Hillary Clinton demonstrated that when it comes to strategy, she has the stuff.
In the days leading up to the debate, no one doubted that Clinton’s command of policy far outstrips Donald Trump’s, or that her intellect is superior to his. But given the uneven playing field she would occupy on account of her gender, there were doubts as to whether she could win the debate without transgressing the standards for likability and loveliness required only of women candidates, while managing to appear presidential. She achieved all that and more by shaping the debate on her terms and turning disadvantages to her favor. Would the male candidate be permitted to repeatedly interrupt her? Fine, let him. Just use his own vanity to unnerve him before the games even begin.
The debate hadn’t even commenced when Clinton landed her first blow. Greeting her opponent onstage before they went to their respective podiums, Clinton said, “How are you, Donald?” Not “Mr. Trump.” (Everybody knows he hates to be called by his first name.) That may seem like a small thing, but with those four words, Clinton attacked his sense of self-importance and claimed her right to be treated as his equal. Once proceedings were underway, she called him by his first name throughout.
It clearly irked him. In their first exchange, about jobs and trade deals, Trump referred to her as “Secretary Clinton,” and then turned to her and said, “Is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It's very important to me.” His aside came off as more petulant than respectful.
It was hardly the evening’s most memorable moment, but it was the one at which Trump lost the debate—the second at which he turned from the much-vaunted “teleprompter Trump” into reality-show Trump (otherwise known simply as Donald Trump). Early on in the debate, when moderator Lester Holt of NBC News asked Clinton to respond to Trump’s answer to a question about how he would bring jobs back to the U.S., Trump interrupted Clinton more than 20 times, as Holt stood haplessly by. It didn’t play well for Trump. Clinton kept her cool and pressed her point, punctuating the exchange with a zinger.
Steering her answer to the development of the creation of new clean-energy jobs, she said: “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it's real.” When Trump interrupted, claiming never to have said that (actually, he made that assertion in a tweet) Clinton responded, “I think science is real.”
Trump went nuts, badgering Clinton, trying to nail her on her apparent support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal while she was in the administration, trying to claim credit for her present position in opposition to the deal (when actually pressure from labor unions and Bernie Sanders’ supporters surely had more to do with her embrace of an anti-TPP position). In short, he came off looking like a jerk, on what perhaps was the one topic on which he could have scored points, if only he could have kept his ego in check. Instead, he continued to unravel.
She attacked him for “stiff[ing]” hundreds of working people in the bankruptcy proceedings he’s undergone for his various companies, citing working-class people such as drapery-makers and dishwashers who lost income because of them, and noted that in the audience was an architect whose bill Trump had shorted. She noted his glee at the impending bursting of the housing bubble in 2006, despite the lost family wealth it meant for regular Americans. “It’s called business, by the way,” Trump interrupted.
Holt asked Trump why he wouldn’t release his tax returns, and in her rejoinder, Clinton noted that several tax returns of Trump’s that were made public (because of a casino deal he was making) revealed he had paid no federal income tax.
“That’s smart,” he interrupted, again.
By the time Holt found his footing, in the second half of the debate, to ask difficult questions, Clinton had already thrown Trump so far off any kind of strategic game that he couldn’t even play the race card for his base from a strong hand. His response to a question about healing the racial divide was to call for the restoration of the stop-and-frisk policies of the past. That, in and of itself, was not a strategic mistake for him, given the base of resentful white people he has claimed for himself. But when Holt reminded him that New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy had been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge, Trump refuted the fact.
Asked about his longstanding crusade perpetuating the false claim by right-wing activists that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, Trump attempted to lay the narrative in the hands of operatives of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. While sizable numbers of Republican voters may believe him, his assertion also left Clinton the opening to show how Trump sought to delegitimize the nation’s first black president.
Where Clinton likely made the strongest case with voters who may not yet be in her camp was in one of her final speeches of the debate, after Holt asked Trump what he meant when he claimed his female opponent did not have "a presidential look." He refused to elaborate, but then reiterated a claim he makes frequently questioning the former secretary of state's stamina.
"Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina," Clinton replied.
After noting Trump's pivot from the question regarding his statement about Clinton's looks to a point about stamina, she recounted the insults Trump has hurled at women. “[T]his is a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs,” she said. She recounted the story of Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe (a beauty pageant Trump once owned), who claims Trump called her “Miss Piggy” when she gained some weight, and disparaged her as a Latina by calling her “Miss Housekeeping.”
“Where did you find this?” Trump asked. But he didn’t deny it. Then he all but asked to be granted points for not saying something "extremely rough" he had planned to say about Clinton and her family.
Women who normally vote Republican may well be inspired to vote for Clinton by this exchange, and Machado’s story could help boost Latino turnout at the polls.
But there wasn’t much in the debate, aside from an early mention by Clinton of her plan for “debt-free college” that specifically targeted millennials, many of whom are enamored of third-party candidates.
Still, in the annals of feminism, Monday’s debate will rank with the epic tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. It remains to be seen whether it has moved the needle in what is presently a very close presidential contest.